Kyiv-86 (excerpt)

How did it come to this?

Back then there was the Big Bang at Chornobyl nuclear plant, and we had to urgently scour pavement, to mobilize redundant special vehicles, to reduce ceremonial parade to two hours, to reduce the number of its participants – in fact, the main thing we had to do was reduce, reduce and reduce. We had to break up clouds over Pripyat, especially nimbostratus ones to stop – God forbid! – the rain from falling down. We had to pour poisoned milk into drains, check the evacuees for the amount of radiation dose they had received, drag them into bath and laundry units, and then shave their heads, stick a yellow chevron with radiation sign on it to their chests and house them in newly-built apartment blocks we had planned to give happy Kyivans as May Day gifts.

We had to drill well-rooms as fast as we could, we had to lay water-supply pipes underneath the Dnipro river, and sit everything out at home with gauze-covered vent-panes amid alarming rumors about the disaster spiraling out of control. We chatted about governmental Volga-limos specially made to carry Communist party officials (the so-called “body-transporters”): these limos were rumored to be parking one by one as close to air-stairs as possible with their passengers leaving their footwear inside, getting aboard airplanes and flying the hell away in a hurry after farsightedly sending their children to sunny and salty Odessa where seagulls squeak and rusty port cranes creak. We had to share bad news about the highways clogged with cars crammed with people scared to death. We had to kick up a row at schools; we had to agree to let our schoolchildren be evacuated to pioneer camps with their pervasive aroma of fir-needles, multicolored summerhouses, and freakish pictures of animals from cartoons produced by Soyuzmultfilm studio. Children would sit there by the fire staring at glowing embers, at red-hot tongues of flame and would spook each other with scary stories about the cities where there was no one to play games with, the cities where heavy tennis balls of apricots swelled with ripeness but there’d be no one to pick them: the fruits would ripen and fall – tender and warm — onto crackled tarmac. And those children who remained in the City would stare in amazement at empty class-rooms; they’d be astonished at their parents’ new habit to wash their footwear after coming home, to filter water through activated charcoal, and to use mineral water for cooking thick red beet-root soup.

Women would wear short petticoats, drink more alcohol and – in anticipation of invisible death – would fuck like mad as if secretly hoping to make their orgasmic gasps heard on a national radio program. Well-oiled guys wearing trousers made at “Donbass” clothing factory would hook the women up under emerald-green chestnut trees and lead them under their lush canopy into small back yards where American music mixed up with happy shrieks would flow from opened windows and fly echoing into far-away darkness.

And then suddenly everybody wouldn’t give a damn and stage a bicycle racing through the streets of Kyiv on a Victory Day, everybody would be happy as hell with the victories won by FC Dynamo Kyiv, everybody would lionize Blokhin the footballer and kiss the hood of his grey Volga limo and breath in the life that used to come crushing down upon their heads in the form of a sweltering sun every May and every ear. And every year seemed to be bringing them closer to their much dreamed-of happy future: the future without food shortages and without bans on alcoholic drinks.

But nothing of the kind happened. While “Kyivska Pravda” newspaper printed front-page stories about super-productive lathe operators, about planishers, and about newly-opened sports grounds, panic was taking hold of the City. On a Sunday morning convoys of special vehicles started crawling alarmingly northward through the Obolon neighborhood. High-profile commies hastily called Moscow pleading for more trains and more planes to be sent to Kyiv. Panic buying emptied the tickets out of ticket-offices for a month ahead. Happy profiteers flogged them at a threefold price, while stampede at the railway station was reminiscent of the movies about India where people would take trains by storm and then clamber up the roofs of railway cars in dense throngs – those were the unsung tenacious heroes of unshot films about fear and despair.

The gusts of wind kept coming from the nuclear power plant, and Shcherbytskiy, the Communist tsar of Ukraine, didn’t dare to direct his people to march at May Day parade. And the people took to their heels. Communist party members gathered frightenedly round the windows of special ticket-offices at airports where there were no tickets either. Nobody could even think of chucking those without tickets out of passenger trains. The rumbling of evacuation buses and clattering of special vehicles turned into the deathbed moans of Kyiv exhaled into the hot air already warmed by late-spring sun. The shops had been looted. Hundreds of people died during stampede at the railway station. Even troops could do nothing to stop the marauders. The Soviet Union collapsed a few years later. Ukraine was left to her own devices to face the gaping hole as big as Moldova. And now I’m a tour guide showing foreign visitors around this hole.